Pile O'Discs, Volume 1

As we await the arrival of our Guest Writer Series at the Confluence-Film Blog (the first feature in this series will be written by Confluence-Film co-founder Ephraim Asili who will be writing about the conundrums of the avant-garde/experimental cinema world as it exists today), I in the meantime have contrived what will be a regular feature column. This is in an effort to make the posting frequency on the blog a little more substantial, with less of a lull-time in between posts, which for me is spent thinking of subjects that are worth writing about in volume. It goes without saying that looking at existing works can lend invaluable cues and teach us invaluable lessons about projects on the skillet and the work we have ahead of us as artists.

I figured that there is always a reason why I watch certain things at certain times, and why I read certain things at certain times, either due to current interest and/or current fascination, but rarely due to just mood or whim. So, with that in mind, I will be trying to write (at the very least) one post every week to review the films that have been on my recent viewing list—and examining the reasons why they’re currently on my radar. The write-ups will hopefully be brief and to the point, to consider issues in filmmaking, viewership, topics in film studies and all that jazz. And with the latter expression in mind, the first film to be reviewed for this inaugural article in the Pile O'Disc series is…

1. All That Jazz (1979): I've been given an opportunity to direct either a stage musical or a web-series musical as a director-for-hire, and I have been looking at films that have subverted, both covertly and overtly, the musical genre. All That Jazz was one of the first films at which I had a look. What immediately struck me was the editing of the film. There are two sequences in the film I can watch repeatedly: the opening "On Broadway" montage and the "Take Off With Us/Air-Rotica" number about an hour into the film. This is certainly a testament to Fosse's compelling execution, choreography and his direction which yields surprising emotional resonance considering we are seeing something that has been done in so many other movies (i.e. singing and dancing) without the real emotional baggage Fosse lends to that work. I do find the Oscar-winning editing in the film a deficit sometimes (notice I say "sometimes" and not "generally" because the editing in other parts is often exhilarating), particularly in the "Take Off With Us" sequence. Fosse, to me, is at times much too preoccupied with cutting and not concerned enough with letting his impeccable and intensely personal choreography play out before us naturally. I guess there might exist some weariness on Fosse's part to avoid "staginess," but he seems much too inclined to use the tricks of the filmmaking trade to obscure his gifts as a choreographer of movement. Collective movement that grows organically in longer cuts, to me, yields more enthralling visual results than the relentless cutting Fosse seems to prefer (look no further than the "hair-whipping sequence" in Peter Brook's film version of Marat/Sade as an example of how that longer-shot-length montage aesthetic works so much better and even more cinematically). Theater directors making the leap to film directing often overuse editing to cover up their own insecurities about working in a new form. It gets frustrating, particularly when Fosse, without much point, awkwardly cuts to irrelevant shots like the musicians playing the music, interrupting the focus of the scene which should be on his dancers and the producer characters watching his dancers. Generally, the point of cutting is to reveal new visual information and many times, I feel, he just cuts to cut. This is not to say that I think All That Jazz is a poor film or that it is poorly edited. Those editing moments are just quibbles I had about it. All That Jazz was compulsory viewing for me nonetheless as it often beautifully subverts the conventions of its genre, and does so with gusto and bountiful originality. And Roy Scheider has never been better. "It's showtime, folks!" The other film I viewed for reference was Jesus Christ Superstar. If you would imagine for a moment an Orthodox Jew walking in to take that film out from a video store, you would be imagining something I actually had to surmount last week...and quite funny it was.

2. De komst van Joachim Stiller (1976): This DVD is an import from the Netherlands. In prepping for my upcoming project Permanent Arrangements, which is shooting next year, I've been looking specifically at films that use magical realism and films where the narrative thrusts occur as a result of cosmic happenstance. The director, Harry Kumel, also helmed Malpertuis, which is rather a favorite of mine. I was immediately struck in this film by how Kumel augmented his sense of stylization, even beyond that of the previous Malpertuis. The acting, while feeling somewhat real the majority of the time, is often playfully campy and large, the narrative situations get increasingly bizarre and baroque as the film continues and the dialogue and visual tropes pack a curiously barbed satirical punch. The often gorgeous cinematography offsets Kumel's superimposed painting-like surrealist skies which hover over the heads of his characters. I can also cite this film as the reason a lightbulb recently went off in my rewrites of the Permanent Arrangements script.

3. The Rain People (1969): This is possibly my favorite Francis Ford Coppola film. With this viewing, I was specifically looking at how an American male director can render an extraordinarily honest portrait of an emotionally complex woman, because my upcoming film project Permanent Arrangements is such a case. I see it as quite an undertaking. What makes this movie stand out from the likes of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and An Unmarried Woman is that the key to the film's success in this department is inherent in how the film itself was made. The eight-vehicle film crew started on Long Island and, very much like the people in the story, filmed in eighteen states while on the road-trip across country, writing and rewriting the screenplay as they went along. Shirley Knight plays an alienated, newly pregnant Long Island housewife who, one day feeling an overwhelming emptiness and void in her life, packs up in a station-wagon, leaving her husband to take to the road with no destination in mind and no clear objective to the journey ahead of her. On the road, she picks up manchild James Caan, an ex-college football player with acute separation anxiety and a general child-like immaturity, and a highway patrolman played by Robert Duvall. What did I observe from viewing the film for the above-stated reasons? I would be shocked if I find out that the extent of Knight's contribution to the story itself was any less than I think it was. Certain choices she makes in her performance, to enhance and move the story forward, are too singular to her to have been written by anyone else, even Coppola, who feels exceptionally close to the material. How is it so that a semi-nude scene with our heroine alone in a room reflecting on the past towards the film's opening feels so intense and private, so much so that we feel inclined to avert our eyes (but don't because, despite the discomfort, we are still transfixed)? Coppola's framing and staging is also economical and often all the more beautiful for it, an example being an exquisite long-take involving a three-way mirror.

4. The Rocketeer (1991) and Jumanji (1995): Like a pregnant woman with a craving, I had a strong hankering, a jones if you will, to see these two films again since I was fond of them growing up. Looking at them now, you come to consider how the "megabudget special-effects film" has morphed and evolved. Both of these films were directed by Joe Johnston and, while Johnston may not have an instantly recognizable name, it would seem that he is a great deal better at helming these types of films than the countless other hacks chosen to helm them. For one thing, there's definitely a "there" there. While there are very few non-effects shots in Jumanji, there is a certain integrity in the proceedings that is lacking overall in similar films since. In The Rocketeer, great cares and great pains have been taken in rendering a 1930's Los Angeles that, believe it or not, has narely ever felt realer or more lovingly conceived and constructed. The design in that film is immaculate and respect for the period, complete with an homage to Frankenstein-faced "baddie" character actor Rondo Hatton. Industrial Light and Magic is responsible for the special effects in both films. When I look at an action clip from a film like Independence Day today, for instance, it looks to me like a video game. The same can be said for the monkeys and a lot of the other critters in Jumanji and some of the process shots in The Rocketeer. While Hollywood would have believe that they have taken the art of special effects to a degree of faultlessness, these films are fascinating curios into how such effects have evolved. I, for one, recall sitting in a fifth or sixth grade class and watching Jumanji and how my classmates oohed and ahhed at the constant stream of visual effects. I soon realized that showing the film to kids of today would provoke laughter and ridicule of the special effects. Oh the times they have a-changed. Nonetheless, a worthwhile trip down memory lane.

5. Grand Canyon (1991): I had another peak at this to observe how the 2.35 aspect ratio was used for such an intimate story. While the film feels a little too pleased with itself a lot of the time, I have a hard time not appreciating its audacity and tenacity. While I have difficulty digesting Steve Martin as a producer of uber-violent Hollywood action films who sees the light when he is shot in the leg by a mugger and while I feel much of it is overwritten, other aspects of the tableau-like story strike a very personal chord in me as a viewer. Much of the film's philosophising has entered into the realm of mainstream movie cliche (all that about inadvertently affecting other peoples' lives in bold strokes, fate, chance, the whole ball of wax), but we come to invest a great deal in the characters Lawrence Kasdan has developed for us. In my case, this is particular to Mary McDonnell's character, a superficially happy but spiritually unfullfilled woman who finds a baby thrown away and lying in a patch of woods to whom she feels connected and wishes to raise as her own. The aspect ratio decision is an interesting case in point as well. The cinematographer is the great Owen Roizman, and he uses the frame to enhance our perception of the other in the film's often two-way interactions between characters. Close-ups, it would seem, comprise the general shot aesthetic, and they are used effectively. Although the film is ostensibly sprawling and the aspect ratio augments this overall feeling for the material, its essentially a film about interaction and about the relationship relative to various individuals. By shooting in 2.35, Kasdan and Roizman envelop us in the visual dynamic of human interaction. Elementary, yes...over-the-shoulder, over-the-shoulder, etc. But by widening the frame to this degree, we are made further aware of the other's reaction, thus the concept of the close-up is intellectually and emotionally opened up.

ON THE ROSTER: The Other Side of the Underneath (Jane Arden, 1972), My Blood Runs Cold (William Conrad, 1965), Nous Ne Viellirons Pas Ensemble (We Won't Grow Old Together) (Maurice Pialat, 1972)

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